Encounter, 8×16, acrylic on wood
Mary, as in “Blessed Virgin,” never meant all that much to me. I hung around Catholic circles most of my life and saw her pious, blue-eyed face plastered in various corridors of my life– a statue at my grandmothers house, prayer cards slipped into my purse or pocket, jewelry, my mother’s rosary. I knew people with what seemed sincere and consuming devotions to her. I was interested in her (mostly because she was a woman in a church where men seemed most prominently on display), but I never felt connected to her. That was until we shared a moment over two years ago.
I was a newlywed hoping to start a family, and getting pregnant was easy. I’ll never forget the faint blue plus sign on the pregnancy test and the eager excitement with which I, completely unable to wait for him to come home, called my husband. I’ll also never forget the emergency room. The doctor who made jokes while I cried after he diagnosed me with an ectopic pregnancy. No heartbeat. Fallopian tube. I had to wait three months to “try again” a phrase that felt cruel and insensitive as it rolled off the tongues of both friends and strangers. Getting pregnant the second time was also easy. Twins. Two hearts beating and, this time, from the security of my uterus. They sat me in a large leather chair in the “bad news room” of my doctor’s office when they told me I’d miscarried, that the ultrasound no longer showed heartbeats. They were gone.
Three. I’d lost three children in a matter of months. My anger consumed me; I couldn’t look at pregnant women without resentment, which is putting it lightly. Hatred might be a more appropriate description. I was teaching high school art at the time, and the mostly female faculty seemed just to be taking turns getting pregnant. And their pregnancies always seemed to lead to births. Weeks later a baby would appear at school in a carrier, and we’d gather round making faces at a tiny sleeping face.
I was not okay and didn’t know what to do with my anger and my grief. One night after a particularly rough batch of parent-teacher conferences and run-ins with mothers and mothers-to-be, I found myself crying to my steering wheel, not really wanting to go home but not knowing where else to go. That’s when a little inner voice said, “Go to the adoration chapel at St. Dominic. I have something to show you.” I promptly responded to the voice with a resounding “No.” I was tired, eager to go home and wrap myself up in grief and netflix.
But the voice persisted, and I decided to go just to prove it wrong, to prove that there would be nothing for me to see. I was sure it would “just be” the eucharist and I’d seen that before. The God I believed in was an old dog, no new tricks.
I walked in the chapel to find the Eucharist. And something else–a tiny statue of Mary on a little platform in front of the altar. This wasn’t a “regular” Mary. This Mary happened to be pregnant. The image overwhelmed me and before I could sit down, I was engulfed in tears, certain I would hear Mary tell me that I was going to one day be a mother. She didn’t.
“Do you hate me, too?” I heard her whisper in my heart. “Yes,” I answered. “No,” I recounted. What followed in our heart-to-heart conversation was something like this:
Mary: “Don’t think I don’t know what it’s like to lose my child.”
In my mind I saw not the ever-pious, expressionless Mary, but a Mary grieving the loss of her son. A Mary whose son slipped away from her and there was nothing she could do to stop it. A Mary holding a corpse.
Mary: Resurrection follows suffering. There will be resurrection in your life. It doesn’t make the grief any less or even good. But resurrection does come. Have faith in that. I’m not promising you a baby. I’m promising you resurrection.
The statue’s slender hand was placed gently against her enlarged belly. Hope. Potential. But also unimaginable pain. Salvation, hope, joy out of death, decay, anguish.
Me: So this, even this, will bring forth new life? God will use this suffering for good? He can? He will?
It’s been over two years since Mary and I spoke that day, and my life is radically different. I, like Mary, have a son. He’s approaching two. The husband who had been so supportive during my pregnancy losses vanished at the birth of our son. He’d been battling demons I never knew of, and, right now, I think they are winning. I never thought I’d be a single parent. I thought my troubles were over when I had a perfect pregnancy that lead to a beautiful boy resting in my arms. I can’t imagine what I would have done those two years ago if I’d known the suffering that was to come. In that moment, I could have imagined nothing worse.
I try to remember pregnant Mary when I pray. When I suffer. When I feel alone. She reminds me that good can come, yes, even of this. And she continually promises me resurrection from the fertile ground of pain.
I can’t see what’s coming, and I don’t know what this resurrection will look like. I do know that I’m pursuing my dream of becoming an artist, something I never would have done before my marriage ended. I’m also eager to help women suffering from the loss of their children or marriage. And, above all, I believe again in a God who makes all things new. Who rises from the dead.
This painting is based loosely on an image of my son and me but my interest in it was not as a portrait but as a reflection on motherhood and the simultaneous pain and beauty that accompany it.